Which is the best whisky to drink? Scotch or Japanese? Irish or bourbon?
That’s like asking; ‘which is the best car? An Aston Martin, Ferrari or Rolls Royce?’ All are equally awesome, it’s just that some have been designed more for one purpose than another and may be superior in one aspect yet inferior in another. The purpose you have in mind for your new car will usually determine which is the better one for that end.
It’s exactly the same with whisky, although not quite as clear cut as there is a lot of variation within each whisky style that makes for a lot of overlapping. Yet, if you are new to the joys of whisky, it is good to start somewhere and get a broad overview of the differences so you can subsequently develop your own opinions – preferably with glass in hand.
We have to start with Scotch; the daddy of all whiskies, from which all others followed. The first thing to realise is that Scotch is not a new invention, it has been made in Scotland for hundreds of years – at least since the 15th century but likely much longer. Even the word ‘whisky’ comes from the Gaelic word ‘usquebaugh’ or water of life, which over time got shortened to ‘uiskie’ and became the product we know and love today.
Of course, this also means that Scotch making is very steeped in tradition and, like champagne, can only be called such if it has been made in Scotland. In fact, it even needs to be bottled in Scotland too if it is to be allowed to be called ‘Scotch whisky’, unless it is a blended whisky. Single malt Scotch must be made with 100% malted barley, while grain whisky is generally made with a combination of malted and unmalted barley, as well as wheat. Blended Scotch is a mix of malt and grain whiskies matured for at least three years.
Scotch is – usually – distilled twice with single malts being processed in a copper pot still while grain whiskies are distilled in a column still. The whisky is then put into a wide variety of casks to mature for a variety of years. These casks must be made from oak but are usually second hand having held everything from bourbon, sherry, wine, port or cognac previously. The oak wood imparts much of Scotch’s flavour although aspects of what spirit was in the cask before can also flavour the whisky.
Unsurprisingly, due to the importance of Scotch to Scottish culture, there are an incredible number of distilleries around the country and each makes the best use of the local terroir to create the unique flavour profiles for their whiskies. Many of these distilleries are located on islands or in coastal areas and make use of the local natural peat during the malting of the barley which gives Scotch much of its flavour. Most Scotch distilleries focus on making just one single malt but are happy to use other distilleries’ malts in their blends to create a massive variety of subtly different flavoured whiskies.
If you love Scotch, you’ll probably really like Japanese whisky too. That’s because the Japanese idolise Scotch whisky so much they tried to replicate themselves – up to a point. They follow the same techniques the Scots utilise by employing the same ingredients, often even importing malted barley from Scotland. They double distil their whisky as well before aging it in wooden barrels – just like the Scots.
Where they start to differ from the uber-traditional Caledonians is in the composition of these barrels. While some Japanese distillers are happy to follow the Scotch recipe of importing used bourbon barrels for the task, others have dared to use barrels made from the local mizunara tree – which adds a distinct spicy flavour to these whiskies.
The Japanese are also a little more experimental when it comes to flavour too. Unlike Scotch makers who are more or less obliged to work within a consistent palette of whisky flavours that have been around for centuries, the Japanese aim for more delicate-tasting whiskies. This came about partly due to the Japanese not being strapped to tradition but also due to the early Japanese blended whiskies being made with blending alcohol. This was a neutral spirit that hadn’t been aged in wood and was all the Japanese could get their hands on in the years immediately after the war. While blending alcohol is still around – and is legal to use in Japanese whisky even now – most modern distillers prefer to make grain-based whisky and age it in wooden barrels of some form.
Another interesting difference with Japanese whisky is in blending. Whereas the Scotch and Irish distilleries are happy to blend whiskies from other distilleries the larger Japanese distilleries don’t, focusing instead on blending their own produce. They get around any potential for sameyness by using a wide variety of yeasts in the fermentation stage to produce radically different blends.
For a start, whisky is spelled ‘whiskey’ in Ireland (and America) but that’s not the only difference. Unlike Scotch, Irish whiskey is usually made from unmalted barley along with a variety of other grains. This came about not due to any particular fondness for unmalted over malted barley, but because in the past malted barley was taxed in Ireland whereas unmalted wasn’t.
Like Scotch, Irish whiskey is distilled in copper pots although in Ireland they tend to use smaller pots whereas a variety are used in Scotland. But the big difference between the two is in the distillation process. In essence; Irish whiskey is distilled three times as opposed to Scotch’s two. This makes Irish whiskey smoother on the mouth and generally lighter in colour – but it also sacrifices a bit in flavour. That’s why it is rare to get the same strong flavour profiles in Irish whiskey that you often get in Scotch. This comparative blandness makes Irish whiskey ideal for blending – and as the whiskey element in long drinks and cocktails.
Unlike the other whiskies above, bourbon is not predominantly made from barley but corn. In fact, bourbon must consist of at least 51% maize (the term for corn when used in production) for it to be called as such, although rye, wheat and barley can be used to make up the remainder. The maize is what gives bourbon its inherent sweetness so the greater the percentage of maize, the sweeter the result.
Unlike Scotch, bourbon is not unique to a single district and can actually be manufactured in any US state and still be called ‘bourbon’. The fact that so much is made in Kentucky originally came from the fact that the limestone water so common in the state made it easier to filter out impurities like iron from the mix.
Bourbon is usually distilled first in a column still, then goes through a second distillation in a copper pot. The distillation is then put into a brand new wooden cask which, if it is made from American oak, will often impart a vanilla-like flavour to the bourbon. The warmer temperatures of the American South also mean that evaporation happens a lot quicker than in Scotland, Ireland or Japan so bourbon tends to mature much faster than the colder climate whiskies.
So while this may give you an overview of the different whisky types, it is of course a sweeping generalisation as there are always exceptions to the rule like; triple-distilled Scotch whiskies; peated Irish whiskey; and Japanese blends made from Canadian grains. But hopefully you should now have an idea of the general philosophy behind each national style so you can choose a whisky that will marry with your drinking goals. So, if you like to savour flavour in your whisky, then Scotch or Japanese single malts are possibly your best bet. If you like long drinks like highballs or whiskey cocktails, then Irish whiskey might be a great option. And if you like to splash mixer into your whiskey, then a blended whisky or bourbon could be just the ticket. Cheers!